Kim Young-ha: Black Flower – an imaginative re-telling of a fascinating byway of Korean history

by Philip Gowman on 13 March, 2013

in Book Reviews | Colonial period | Joseon Dynasty | Korean literature in translation | Koreans elsewhere

Kim Young-ha: Black Flower
Originally published in Korean in 2003
This edition Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012, 305pp,
Translated by Charles La Shure
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Black Flower coverBlack Flower tells the fascinating story of a thousand or so Korean emigrants who sailed from Jemulpo (now Incheon) in 1905 in search of jobs in Mexico, and ended up founding a short-lived Korean nation in the jungles of Guatemala. It was a rag-bag collection of people: ex-soldiers, a palace eunuch, some minor royals, a recusant priest, a shaman and a thief were among them. None of them saw much future in Korea, and they hoped to earn enough money in Mexico, during the four-year period they were contracted to work there, to buy a bit of land on their return to their homeland. But their hopes were to prove impossibly high. Work on the henequen fields was harsh: they hadn’t realised that they had been shipped across the Pacific to do the Dirty Difficult and Dangerous work that the local Spanish landowners couldn’t find enough local Mayans to do. And while they were away in Mexico their own country became absorbed into the Japanese empire – indeed, in the very year that they sailed, Japan took over Korea’s foreign policy, meaning that the migrants had little chance of diplomatic assistance when they realised what they had signed up for.

The narrative is split into three sections. The first part is the longest and most entertaining of the three, and describes the journey of the emigrants from Jemulpo across the Pacific to the West Coast of Mexico, where their journey continues by train and boat until they reach the Yucatan Peninsula where they are to be put to work in the henequen fields. [1]

Yucatan Peninsula

Colonialism is one of the many themes in this intricately-woven work. The Koreans migrated from a land just about to fall under the Japanese colonial yoke to one which had been taken over by the Spaniards centuries earlier, and were transported in a British ship the Ilford on an enterprise organised by the Continental Colonization Company. And just as Korea itself was to see rapid social and economic change in the upcoming decades, the one thousand emigrants found such change condensed into a matter of months. Yangban literally rubbed shoulders with thieves in the hold of the ship, and on the haciendas you either harvested the henequen to manufacture rope or you didn’t eat. Only the senior yangban refused to work, but his daughter, who is in love with a street urchin, finds that she can make money other ways.

The storyline follows a large number of characters who are scattered between different haciendas, but Kim manages carefully to orchestrate the plot so that the reader is able to follow the many moving parts while learning a little about Mexican colonial history along the way.

The second part of the narration deals with what happens to the Koreans after they leave the henequen plantations. And just as the characters in the novel, caught up in the Mexican revolution, are buffeted by the forces of history, so the narrative itself changes markedly in character. The novel here is less able to keep hold of the stories of individual characters as their lives are disrupted by war, and consequently becomes less easy to follow. Of necessity, much of the text strays into historical exposition, and sometimes into something which reads like a political pilgrim’s progress:

What was clear, though, was that none of the nations that Ijeong had passed through, not even Villa’s camp, was the ultimate form of government he desired.

To be fair, some of this might be weaknesses in the translation. There are a few sentences in the second and third parts which are strongly reminiscent of workmanlike translations of Korean histories covering the turbulent 1980s. For example:

The Mayans, who made up a solid majority of the population, were faced with the severe oppression and discrimination of the Cabrera regime, and this naturally led to an uprising of Mayans around the nation.

And the use of the phrase “punitive troops” in part three calls to mind a narration of the Kwangju uprising. This final part of the book, the improbable foundation of the short-lived state of New Korea in the middle of a rain forest, as a subgroup of the Korean labourers sign up as mercenaries in the Guatemalan civil war, is an intriguing backwater of history, and is the curiosity which prompted Kim Young-ha to write this novel in the first place.

Kim explains some of the background to his novel in the last few pages. This afterword is useful in many ways as it answers most of the questions that present themselves to you as you read the book. For example, how much of the historical background is true? Well, Kim Young-ha consulted historical records which included information on the British ship, the Ilford, which carried the emigrants across the Pacific, and also read the journals left behind by some of the settlers. A 1916 article in New Korea, a newspaper produced by the Korean immigrant community in San Francisco, is possibly the earliest complete telling of the story.

And why is the novel called Black Flower?

Black is a color created by combining all the other colors. Similarly, everything is mixed together in this novel — religion, race, status and gender — and what emerges is something completely different … But there is no such thing as a black flower: it exists only in the imagination. In the same way, the place that the characters in the novel hoped to go to is a utopia that does not exist in reality.

Of course, there is one question that only the reader can answer: does it all satisfy as a novel? We start almost with an impossible romance between the street urchin and minor royal; we end in farce as the fledgling New Korea is crushed in the bowels of a Mayan tomb. In between, we get a strong sense of the emigrants being carried along and dispersed by the forces of history. By comparison with Kim Young-ha’s other novels which have been translated into English (Your Republic is Calling You and I Have a Right to Destroy Myself) this is probably not the one to win new fans for the author. But this is fascinating as a re-imagining of a little nook of Korean history, and reminds us that truth can often be stranger than fiction.

Additional fascinating facts:

Some of the Korean migrants, on being released from the Mexican henequen fields, moved on to Cuba to seek livelihoods there. Their story is told by Song Il-gon in his film The Dance of Time (also known as Los Coreanos), a documentary focusing on the present day descendents of those migrants in Cuba. While researching his novel, Kim Young-ha met some of the descendants of the Korean migrants who still live in the Yucatan. “None of them spoke Korean,” he says. “Yet they did know the word ‘kimchi’ and ate something similar to it.”

Links:

  1. For an overview of the Mexican haciendas (without focusing on the hardships suffered by the labourers), try http://www.yucatantoday.com/en/topics/haciendas-yucatan. [back]

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